In today’s blog post, I share my interview with six-time Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Yola. The British singer talks about standing for herself, what it means to be musically genre-fluid, and playing the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Lurhmann’s new Elvis biopic.
It’s hard to imagine anyone would ever discourage the amazingly talented singer Yola Carter– professionally known as Yola– from singing or playing guitar.
And yet, at some point during her music career, she was told she had “no place playing a guitar” and singing Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“I was told in actual words: ‘No one wants to hear a Black woman sing Rock ‘n’ Roll,’” says the British singer. “I’m like, ‘Well that’s a problem because a Black woman invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.’”
Referring to the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Yola credits the late Black singer as one of her musical influences. (She even played Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s new upcoming film Elvis, a role which Yola considers to be a great honor.)
“It’s kind of galling how much we owe to her,” Yola says. “…everything she did, even though now it’s something that we take for granted, was innovated by her.”
Although some may categorize Yola’s music as a mix of country and Rock ‘n’ Roll, the “Stand For Myself” singer doesn’t believe in being confined to just one type of music genre. Instead, she considers herself to be “musically genre-fluid.”
For Yola, being musically genre-fluid describes her music style which she says can “move smoothly between genre to find the connective tissue” and trace the lineage of music.
Yola explains there is also a political connection to being musically genre-fluid.
“I think it’s so easy to not reconcile the lineage of some music with Black America,” she says. “We lose touch. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a great example. And I think when you can hear all the things that Rock ‘n’ Roll is related to and hear the things that soul touches– which is frankly everything– and how interconnected music is because of its shared roots. That’s the thing that I’m most interested in– is finding how things are close together. And more than how things are different. And so that’s what fascinates me. That’s my motivation.”
This year is off to a great start for Yola. She was nominated for two Grammys– Best American Roots Song for “Diamond Studded Shoes” and Best Americana Album Stand for Myself– making it her sixth Grammy nomination!
Yola’s “Stand 4 Myself” tour also recently kicked off on March 3rd, with two opening shows at The Ryman in Nashville, Tennessee.
I was sad to learn that her March 11th show at Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit was cancelled because of structural issues with the venue’s building. However, I thought I’d still share my interview with Yola because the story behind her music is inspiring!
Hope you enjoy reading the interview! xoxo
Jennifer: So 2022 is off to a great start for you. Your “Stand 4 Myself” tour is kicking off next week in Nashville. How does it feel to be back on tour? (Yola’s tour kicked off in Nashville, Tennessee on March 3, 2022)
Yola: Well, real exciting. It’s dawned on me, with the first cycle and the way that you do a debut cycle, you’re rushing to react to so many things. You don’t always get the opportunity to really sculpt something.
And so there’s something just profoundly exciting about knowing what it is that you want to do and being able to craft something that’s especially for tour that you can’t get anywhere else. That isn’t on the first or second record. That hasn’t been done on Fallon or Kimmel or Corden or any of those kinds of shows I’ve done. It’s not appeared anywhere.
I’m bringing a bunch of stuff that hasn’t been done anywhere, as well as the things that you know and love.
Jennifer: Congratulations on your Grammy nominations for “Diamond Studded Shoes” and your album!
Yola: Thank you!
Jennifer: How are you feeling about your Grammy nominations?
Yola: Just really frickin’ proud! (laughs) Really proud. The thing that you hear is that you may be recognized for one record, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll keep recognizing you.
But if they do, then that’s a really great sign that you’re at least heading in a good direction and that they’re aware of you and they think that what you’re doing is quality and significant.
It just feels like I’m really on my way. It feels like: Yep, you’re doing it! You’re on your way. Everyone’s aware of what you’re doing and it’s still legit.
Jennifer: I definitely feel you are on your way. You’re an amazing singer. And I really love “Diamond Studded Shoes” and I love its message. What was the inspiration for the song?
Yola: So it was the old Prime Minister in the UK, Theresa May. I’m pretty sure she’s never thought of herself as an inspiration to music (laughs).
She inspired me in a moment. I was watching her do a Tory party conference, and she was wearing these shoes and they had little diamonds on the heels of them. And she was saying that we didn’t have any more money.
And my first thought was, “And we pay you? We give you enough to buy all the stuff you’re wearing to tell us we don’t have money. Maybe we don’t have money because you’re spending it? Hey, even if you do have the shoes, maybe don’t wear them for the ‘we don’t have money conversation. I wouldn’t!”
It seems so profoundly stupid, and then I realized it wasn’t just stupidity. It was such a detachment from humanity that it didn’t even occur to her that this wasn’t just something that was owed to her.
And it was something that was a plague throughout our political system in the UK– the sense of deserving all of this stuff that is given by the rest of us. ‘Of course, I can do this. Of course, I can break the rules. Of course, I can.’
And so I started thinking, “Well, we’re not gonna be alright, are we?” (laughs) That’s kind of where that started coming from.
And then I went to the U.S. to network and find people and just make connections. This is before I was signed. I went to stay with my friend and he was talking about crazy happenings in the U.S. You guys made some pretty wacky decisions, as well. (laughs)
But we were talking about [how] it’s a bit of a weird scary time. That’s kind of where the song came out of this idea of how divide and conquer is a lot different to what we thought it was.
The top not 0.01% of the 1% and everybody else is kind of being played against each other so that they can get more money for themselves.
And then really kind of shamelessly paraded while saying, ‘Oh, it’s the other poor person that has your money.’ And it just felt like that needed a song.
Jennifer: Yes, and I think that especially after the pandemic and all the hardships that so many people have experienced, this is a song that many people will connect with.
Yola: Big time! We all internationally struggled. There was no one– apart from obviously the not 0.01% of the tippity, tippity top who were just taking advantage of everyone else struggling and became richer. That’s what the figures say. They became better off at the hand of us struggling.
It’s like an inversely proportional situation where it’s not that everyone does better.
No, they drain the rest of the population of just…Earth! (laughs) And that’s kind of problematic. Well, it should be for all the humans. It should be problematic. It doesn’t matter who you are. We should be generally, ‘I don’t like the idea of all of humans being drained for like five people.’ That doesn’t seem cool.
The second you start learning how to say no, people start getting real pissed at you for having boundaries when you used to not. And then you just figured out who actually wanted you to do well.
That really was a big part of standing for myself, having good boundaries, and knowing how to say no.Yola, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter
Jennifer: Yeah, I definitely agree! Another song that I love on your album is “Dancing Away In Tears.”
Jennifer: Yes! It’s one of those songs where I have to listen to it three times in a row because I just love the feel of it. It’s got a little disco to it. And that’s what I also love about your style and your music is how you can flow from country to soul, funk, and pop.
I read in your IG bio you describe your music style as musically genre-fluid. What does that mean to you to be musically genre-fluid?
Yola: It means that for personal reasons of the way my voice works– and for political reasons for the way that genre has worked throughout the ages– move smoothly between genre to find the connective tissue. In my mind and in my understanding of music, I can trace the lineage of music.
I think it’s so easy to not reconcile the lineage of some music with Black America. We lose touch. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a great example. And I think when you can hear all the things that Rock ‘n’ Roll is related to and hear the things that soul touches, which is frankly everything. And how interconnected music is because of its shared roots.
That’s the thing that I’m most interested in is finding how things are close together. And more than how things are different.
And so that’s what fascinates me. That’s my motivation.
I don’t find it as exciting all the way into one genre. I like to have a little bit of something. When I’m into disco, I’ll be into the Barry White’s of that situation. I could go all the way down to “I Feel Love” and that kind of really electronic kind of dance music.
I want the Barry White side– “You’re the First, You’re the Last, You’re My Everything” where there’s the big string arrangements and it still has this attachment to soul music and the big string arrangements that speak of Wall of Sound and the classic pop era.
There’s so much that it’s connected to and also extends into disco. I think they’re the things that I love most in music, as well. The things that inhabit multiple spaces.
“It just feels like I’m really on my way. It feels like: ‘Yep, you’re doing it! You’re on your way. Everyone’s aware of what you’re doing and it’s still legit.’”Yola, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter
Jennifer: The final song on your album is “Stand for Myself” and quoting the lyrics in your song: “It was easier to sing than stand for myself. It was easy to give in than stand for myself.”
I love the honesty in the song and it also feels very personal. How did you find the strength to stand for yourself?
Yola: Well, I just made all the mistakes. (laughs) I was talking to my guitar player Andy about how we just made so many mistakes. Just like so many! I tried every single way that you just shouldn’t do something because society told me to try it those ways.
‘You’re plus size and you’re dark skin. You’re not the typical image of the front person in today’s society. Consequently, maybe don’t bother?’
I tried being a conditional front person. I always felt like I was supposed to be in the front, but I kind of fronted other people’s acts, like a front person for hire. You need someone to sing all the songs and they’re kind of different, my voice can do all the things so you’ll be fine.
And so I found so many ways to avoid that.
I think the first thing was a realization that was a programming that I was receiving and that programming was anti-Black– anti-woman, specifically– which doesn’t necessarily correlate anti-Black woman, which is a special brand of misogynoir.
That kind of programming was what I was paying into by not self-actualizing. I was supporting it. I was being a cheerleader for misogynoir by not doing what I wanted to do.
And allowing myself to be kind of coaxed into, I suppose, my making my path controlled by someone else’s vision.
And so it became this really important role for me to reclaim myself. And when someone met me, they looked at me with the kind of eyes that a cat has after they’ve just caught a mouse. They think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a plan for you.’
Everyone had a plan for me. And so I had to make sure that I had a plan for myself and that I wasn’t ever going to be distracted from it regardless of who was asking. Just stick to it.
‘There may be some cool collaborative things you can do that are really fun and exciting, but you have to stick to your own plan.’
It meant having a vision for myself and having the guts to stick to it.
I think in a lot of situations people would have been like, “You could have been a core member of The Highwomen,” for example, “why didn’t you do that?”
Because of exactly this: I can’t get distracted by a collaborative project, even though I was the only person that was debuting. Because when everyone else goes off and does their own thing, all of a sudden I haven’t promoted my own record. But no one ever really asked that question.
In fact, they started accusing The Highwomen of not inviting me to be a core member. I’m like, “No, buddy. I literally couldn’t. Look at the basic fact: I’m the only person debuting. I’ve just put a record out when we’re recording it a month before. I’m not all of a sudden abandoning my promo schedule that’s been painstakingly put together.”
But people don’t think about the idea of your own path and your own plan. They’re like just stick to the nearest important people. No, I have to become an important person myself.
Jennifer: So you’re standing for yourself and you’re setting boundaries.
Yola: Yeah, and boundaries, is really what “Dancing Away In Tears” is about, subtly. Because you’re outgrowing something. So you’re like, ‘I’m sorry. I’m outgrowing you.’
And yes, it’s a relationship breakup. It’s a friend breakup. Sometimes even to a degree as opposed with blood relations, even when you’re like this is extremely unhealthy.
You’re like, ‘Hey, I just want to have one last drink. One last dance. One last smash. (laughs) One last– whatever it is, just go with love. I’ve got to go here to this. I’ve got this plan and I have this path and I have to walk it. You’re not on that path. You’re walking in a completely other direction. That’s fine. You go do you. I’m gonna go do me.’
That’s really the spirit of that song. That’s why it’s second on the record because it’s the first step of me standing for myself was having any boundaries.
Just any. And I was real crap at them and I got good real quick. The second you start learning how to say no, people start getting real pissed at you for having boundaries when you used to not. And then you just figured out who actually wanted you to do well.
That really was a big part of standing for myself, having good boundaries, and knowing how to say no.
Jennifer: That’s really good. Very inspiring, even for me. Very inspiring!
Recently, you announced that you’re in Baz Luhrmann’s new film Elvis and you play Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I was listening to some of her music last night because I actually didn’t know about her, I’m sorry to say. What was this experience like for you to play a legendary singer?
Yola: The rundown for Sister Rosetta Tharpe is that she was a legendary guitar player, songwriter, singer. And most notably, the person that invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.
It’s kind of galling how much we owe to her. Not only the people she discovered because she was also like a champion and she’d showcase people. There’s people we’d never have access to if she didn’t showcase them.
But she also was a generation before all the people that we know from the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll and was the inspiration to this guitar playing style.
No one had ever distorted the guitar before her. They never distorted an amp in this way. They never created the Rock ‘n’ Roll sound, never that broken up sound. Everything was clean. No one had done it. No one used to bend strings.
Everything she did, even though now it’s something that we take for granted, was innovated by her– the shredding, the hollering that became Rock ‘n’ Roll– she invented it, and single-handedly, for all intents and purposes!
This kind of honor that I have, I feel is something that’s deeply rooted in telling the story of Black women and of the Diaspora and how Black culture affects every corner of contemporary music.
That’s why I speak on being ‘genre-fluid’ is because I like to trace the influence and the lineage. And she’s why I like to trace the lineage because we lose the narrative.
And what happens is what happens to me as a child, as a teen, and as a young adult in my 20s.
I was told I had no place playing a guitar. I was told in actual words: ‘No one wants to hear a Black woman sing rock and roll.’
I’m like, ‘Well that’s a problem because a Black woman invented Rock ‘nd Roll!’ I knew this. I knew how ignorant they were.
That’s really a big and important part of playing her is it to set that record straight in a way that’s extremely in the public eye, extremely in the purview of the general population. So people can’t claim ignorance anymore, and to be able to talk about it, as well.
She invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and from that invention– like BB King was influenced, Elvis was influenced, Little Richard was influenced– all of these people that are the early purveyors of Rock ‘n’ Roll were either people she directly showcased or who were directly influenced by her.
That’s one of the greatest privileges you get to do as an artist is to be able to hold someone that important. And hopefully, redress a great imbalance so that the next generations that come up feel like they have access to everything.
They don’t have to be a trope. If you feel like you’re Black and ‘an other’, you don’t have to feel that way. This is also Blackness and that is also Blackness. And people can’t ‘tropify’ you into a very, very narrow box. You have access to all of these things because all of these things are your birthright.